WWE: Charlotte Flair on WrestleMania, empty arenas and future in NXT

For World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar Charlotte Flair, performing in front of a crowd of one is as important as a crowd of 101,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the sports entertainment brand indoors, with WrestleMania 36 shifted from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay to the company's performance centre in Orlando, Florida.

The professional wrestling giant called more than just one audible for their biggest show of the year, rebranding it as too big for just one night. For the first time, Wrestlemania was held over two days in front of a live crowd consisting of just WWE cameramen and commentators - a world away from the more than 80,000 tickets they had sold for the event. 

Instead, the event was beamed around the world via the WWE Network, pay-per-view and the Fox Network's US-based app. 

But for Flair, daughter of the legendary 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair, it was business as usual. The 34-year-old told Newshub her job as an entertainer is to just that - entertain, regardless of the situation. 

"I went into this WrestleMania not thinking about what was happening around me," Flair said.

 "I knew that when the time came for me to be on camera, be it in Tampa or Orlando, then that was who was going to entertain - the people around the world tuning in.

"I never lost sight of that even though I wouldn't be performing live in front of 80,000 people. I knew once that red light hit, then that was my job to perform and I never changed my mindset.

"Whether you are performing in front of a crowd of one or 101,000, when your music hits then it's time to entertain."

Flair, who has won more singles titles (12) than any other woman in WWE history, said she actually enjoyed the eerie environment of an empty arena.

The bright lights of a WWE event and the raucous nature of  WWE fans can often distract wrestlers from the moment. But for Flair, it was the opportunity to tell a story inside the ring that she and opponent Rhea Ripley wanted to tell.

"I think it allowed me to stay in the moment more and dictate my own pace and not have the fans dictate my pace.

"I believe the fans in the audience are the biggest part of what makes what we do so special, but under the circumstances, I went head-on and thought this was an opportunity to show more of my talent, by meeting that type of intensity, despite not having an audience."

The NXT (WWE's third brand) women's championship match kicked off the second night of WrestleMania and received rave reviews from fans and pundits alike. 

Ripley is a relative novice compared to Flair, but has exploded into the mainstream through eye-catching performances in late 2019 and throughout 2020. 

The 23-year-old from Adelaide in South Australia had only appeared in two WWE flagship events since her NXT debut in 2017. But her athleticism and charisma quickly stood out, and she was elevated to NXT champion in December 2019 and her star has quickly risen since.

WrestleMania 36 marked the first time an NXT title had been defended on the show of shows - a mark of the popularity of WWE's so-called development brand. 

Flair is immensely proud of the match the two put together and hugely impressed with the abilities of the now former champion - a woman whom many have compared to Flair.

"I'm flattered by that, but Rhea will be the first Rhea Ripley, not the next Charlotte Flair. 

"She has a very bright future and I couldn't be more proud of her performance at WrestleMania. But it's gratifying knowing people were entertained by the match, and it was the ultimate compliment that people said they forgot there was no audience while watching our match. 

"They were captivated by the storytelling and the aggression we put on the show and that's what we wanted to achieve."

WWE: Charlotte Flair on WrestleMania, empty arenas and future in NXT
Photo credit: WWE

Flair's championship win at WrestleMania last week now means 'The Queen' returns to the brand she started her WWE journey with. 

After signing a development deal with the company in 2012, Flair made her NXT debut a year later and she quickly established herself as a talent for the future.

She would win the title a few months later, holding it for 258 days, after which she soon appeared in WWE's flagship show: Monday Night Raw.

Six extremely successful years would follow, including playing her part in the first-ever all-women's main event at a WrestleMania alongside Becky Lynch and former UFC champion Ronda Rousey a year ago. 

Flair is excited to be back where it all began for her and embracing the pressure of being the biggest star on NXT. 

She has a plethora of talented athletes to create in-ring magic with, including New Zealand's own Dakota Kai. But it will be a fan's dream match when Flair crosses paths with Japanese sensation Io Shirai.

"I have been so proud and honoured to watch the NXT women's division grow and evolve since after my class left, and after seeing how Rhea Ripley was able to rise to the occasion, it proves that point and this has opened the door to have those dream matches and that's really put the pressure on me to live up to that moment."

And Flair has proven that pressure is no barrier. Her show-stealing match with Ripley further proof that she is one of the greatest women's wrestlers of all time, regardless of what brand she is on or where she is placed on the card. 

"I don't care where I am placed on the card - well actually I do - but in terms of putting pressure on myself to deliver regardless of my spot on the card is exactly the same. 

"I took on the pressure with the match with Rhea because of where I have been and what I have accomplished. For Rhea, this has been a bit of a whirlwind from WWE's development brand to this crazy storyline at the biggest show of the year, so it was on me to make that match work. If that match had not gone well, then that was on me. I didn't look at it as opening WrestleMania; it was more about delivering the best match on the show overall."

Flair and Rhea Ripley at WrestleMania 36
Flair and Rhea Ripley at WrestleMania 36 Photo credit: WWE
WWE: Charlotte Flair on WrestleMania, empty arenas and future in NXT
Photo credit: WWE

And her shift to NXT opens the opportunity of a true full-circle moment for Flair.

Her father's final match in WWE was at WrestleMania in 2008 against another legend Shawn Michaels,  with Flair ringside to witness the historic moment - which led to Flair deciding to follow in The Nature Boy's footsteps. 

Michaels is now working behind the scenes as a producer for NXT, helping talent frame their matches and offer his advice on how they can be better performers. 

"I hadn't thought about that but having Shawn produce one of the matches would be crazy. I was sitting there 12 years ago when he and my dad had the retirement match; it would certainly be a full-circle moment for me."